Crash survivor plans to return to Gander

Brandon Anstey
Published on June 22, 2014
Alena Zimova, 80, was aboard Czechoslovakian Airlines Flight 523 when it crashed shortly after takeoff from Gander Airport on Sept. 5, 1967. The crash left 37 people dead; Zimova was one of 32 survivors. She will be coming to Gander in September for the first time since the crash. — Submitted photo

Visiting the crash site can bring about mixed emotions for survivors of fatal plane crashes. Alena Zimova will share those emotions when she comes to Gander this summer.

Born in the Czech Republic, Zimova lives in Hamilton, Ont. She was aboard Czechoslovakian Airlines Flight 523 when it crashed shortly after takeoff from Gander Airport on Sept. 5, 1967. Zimova was one of 32 survivors of the mysterious crash. Now, nearly 50 years later, she’s planning to return to Gander to visit the crash site and to thank all those who helped that fateful morning.

Alistair Ingram, Zimova’s son-in-law, has known about the experience for years, and said it seemed like the right time to come back to the place where she narrowly escaped death.

“When I first my met mother-in-law, I saw that she had scars on the backs of her hands,” said Ingram. “I just assumed she had been hard working and had a hard life. She had been raised in the Czech Republic, not well-to-do or anything like that. It was only later that I learned from my wife that she had gotten these scars from a plane crash.”

He said it appeared she had moved on from the horrific crash.

“After that crash and after that recovery, she sort of put it behind her and got on with her life, trying not to think about it,” he said. “But I thought it was really quite remarkable because I had never met anybody like that — it was quite fascinating. The fact that she had never been back vaguely surprised me. It was her 80th birthday earlier this year, and I suggested that she should go back to have a look at the area, and if there were people around who were involved, she should meet them to convey her thanks to them after all these years.”

The suggestion to come back to Gander sat with Zimova for a while, but she ultimately decided it would be a worthwhile trip.

“She’s a very private person. Initially she was somewhat reticent, but I think she came to realize what a remarkable thing it was. No. 1, it would be a great opportunity to thank those who had helped her, and No. 2, the record of this visit would be good for her grandkids to have. I think for those reasons she came around to the idea of doing this. She has never been back to Newfoundland since she was medevaced out that night in 1967.”

Jack Pinsent, president of the Gander Airport Historical Society (GAHS), is planning Zimova’s visit to Gander for Sept. 12-13.

“Naturally, the first thing I did was Google the flight number, and eventually came down to the historical society, and a story from the Beacon where Jack Pinsent had been quoted remembering the crash,” said Ingram. “I got in touch with him through the GAHS website, and it turns out he was the air traffic controller on the night her plane crashed. So he has very vivid memories of that. It turns out that his wife was actually one of the nurses at the receiving hospital where my mother-in-law was taken. So both he and his wife are very interested in meeting her. He has certainly been extraordinarily helpful, and very receptive to the idea of her coming.”

For Pinsent, Zimova’s visit will be a significant contribution to Gander’s rich aviation history. He’s excited about getting to be a part of that history once again.

“As far as I know, she’ll be the first and only one to ever return there, and it’s bringing the event that happened back to the forefront. Half the people on board were killed, and people are still surprised that there were any survivors at all,” said Pinsent. “We’re really quite happy about doing it, and it’s quite an honour. Just to bring back the history of it all is so important because that’s what we’re trying to do anyway.”

The Beacon